I had such a good time answering your Thanksgiving questions with Kenji and Stella on our recent installment of Call Special Sauce, we thought we’d do the same thing in a two-episode series leading up to the end-of-year holidays. This week and next, Daniel Gritzer joins Stella to answer your holiday cooking and baking questions, and I can tell you that I learned a lot. You’ll want to listen to the episode or read the transcript to hear Stella’s and Daniel’s complete answers, but here’s a preview:
If you’re among the few Serious Eaters who haven’t heard of roasted sugar, one of Stella’s genius inventions, Stella offers a quick definition: “So toasted sugar is just plain, white, granulated sugar that has been tossed into an oven for some period of time, and that period of time, it’s kind of like toasting bread crumbs or toasting almonds or something, where you can give it a little bit [of time] or a lot to pull out different flavor profiles, like a light toast or a dark toast…. The sugar starts to thermally decompose, which is to say, it starts to caramelize without ever melting, and so you end up getting this kind of dry, granular, lightly caramelized product.”
What’s in it for the baker, you might wonder? One advantage is that using roasted sugar in your holiday cookies makes them less sweet: “It’s still mostly sucrose, so it behaves like sugar in any recipe that calls for white sugar. It’s a total one-to-one swap, but because some caramelization has taken place, it doesn’t taste as sweet, and it does bring a little bit more complexity, some toastiness, some nuttiness, and that sort of thing coming into a dough.”
To improve on classic holiday sugar cookies– you know, the kind you roll out and cut into shapes and frost with colorful icing and pack into tins as gifts- Stella advocates a slight substitution: “Most cookies are all-butter cookies, but instead of using pure butter in this recipe, I substitute a little bit of it with refined coconut oil. And refined coconut oil is a style that has no aroma or flavor of coconut. So even if you’re like, ‘I hate coconut,’ this is not something that’s going to come into play in this recipe. It’s just there for the added richness, because if you’ve ever made a rolled sugar cookie cutout, you may have noticed that they can be a little bit dry, especially over time, if you’re trying to make a cookie that keeps well. So using a little bit of coconut oil in the dough helps it to stay more moist and rich, and it helps it seem more rich, because coconut oil is higher in fat per ounce when compared to butter.”
Besides advising a reader on how to successfully cook a big (and pricey) standing rib roast, Daniel describes his method for making crispy Roman-Jewish fried artichokes, a traditional Hanukkah dish: “It’s a two-stage cooking process, where first you cook the artichokes in olive oil at a lower temperature…. That’s to make them tender. They come out. You kind of smash them flat a little bit and open them up so that they kind of look like flowers, and then you raise the heat on the oil to deep-frying temperatures, up to 350 or so, and then go back in, and you fry them until they’re golden and crisp.”
If you’ve heard that frying in olive oil can be dangerous, fear not: “There is no scientific evidence that I have been able to find to suggest that it is a bad thing to do. The Roman Jews have been doing it for millennia, literally, and it seems to be perfectly fine.” The real risk might lie in that dry, out-of-season artichoke: “I have actually had an artichoke combust, spontaneously combust, while I was slicing it…. Sparks and char and tufts of smoke wafting up off the artichoke from nothing more than cutting it.”
So don’t sweat your holiday cooking and baking this year- we’ve got you covered, on both Special Sauce and the site. Next week, we’ll answer even more of your questions in the second part of this holiday edition of Ask Special Sauce.
Happy holidays, Serious Eaters. I hope it’s not too early to say that.
Ed Levine: Welcome, Serious Eaters, to a special holidays Call Special Sauce. Serious Eaters from all over the country have sent us holiday-related questions they would like us to answer. What we’re really trying to do here is maximize everyone’s holiday pleasure. Here to do the answering and to provide some of their own pleasure-inducing holiday tips are two Serious Eaters who know a thing or two about cooking and baking, Daniel Gritzer—who’s really not here quite yet, he’s two stations away in the New York City subway system, Serious Eats’ managing culinary director will be here—and someone who is here right now, Stella Parks, our resident pastry wizard and a New York Times bestselling author of Brave Tart: Iconic American Desserts. Welcome to our special holiday episode of Call Special Sauce, Stella.
Stella Parks: Hey, Ed. It’s good to be here.
EL: What’s up?
SP: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I’m just baking like crazy and fielding baking questions left and right, and it’s just great.
EL: Is it fun, or does it get to be too much?
SP: It’s fun for me, because I’m not having all the baking disasters, but I think it’s a stressful time for a lot of folks. But hopefully everyone’s having fun. I think most people come to it with a pretty good spirit to know that, yes, it’s a challenging task to undertake so many different recipes that people might commit to for holiday parties, and bake sales, and gatherings, and care packages, and all these different things. I think most people take a pretty good spirit about it.
EL: One of the things I wanted to do before we get into the questions is to ask you how you go about planning and executing all of your holiday content, because I think a lot of people would be interested to know, and I know it’s a lot of work.
SP: Yeah, it’s something that starts way in advance for me. I tend to have something in the neighborhood of two dozen recipes that I’m working on at any given time, so a lot of the recipes that I do move on a longer timeline. So we have a gingerbread recipe that just went up on the site, and I’ve been working on that off and on for the last year. I did a construction gingerbread house a long time ago that we did, that haunted gingerbread house back in the day.
EL: That was awesome. That was one of my favorite things. Remember, we didn’t know how to use a wrecking ball for it, because we wanted to keep it around.
SP: Yeah, we just couldn’t bear to let it go. I think it stayed with us until we physically moved out of that office space.
EL: I think it’s true.
SP: So anyhow, so I had developed this construction gingerbread recipe, and at the time I was so caught up in the concept of iconic American desserts, both for my book, which was at the time about to come out, and the site, because we were trying to really work on that vibe that gingerbread cookies, per se, weren’t something that I had on my radar aside from this construction gingerbread that I used so people could make a cool gingerbread house to have at home but not necessarily that’s super tasty to eat.
So I started working on that recipe over a year ago, and something I wanted to make sure I could tweak it really well and understand what kind of conditions would help make it a more stable recipe. It’s really tough when you’re developing a recipe in July, but you’re thinking to yourself, “This recipe’s going to be hitting the site in December, and that’s the time of year that most people are going to make it, and it’s a lot colder in the kitchen,” so sometimes it really helps to give yourself plenty of time so that you can have a winter month. And I know not all recipe developers can do that, but I tend to work on a very long timeline with my recipes so that I can kind of test them out at different times of the year to see how their behaviors work.
EL: So for you it’s always Christmas in July. Is that what you’re saying?
SP: It’s always Christmas in July, for sure.
EL: Do you float ideas by Niki Achitoff-Gray, our managing editor, and then Vicky Wasik, our visual director, just trying to figure out what you haven’t done and what you think people are going to be interested in? What’s that process like?
SP: Yeah, we kind of are always running ideas by each other. Sometimes someone will have come up with a list of more technical considerations, like here are the recipes people are searching for. People are coming to Serious Eats looking for this type of recipe, but we don’t have it. And so they find holes in our content that need to be filled, and sometimes we have recipes that we might have one on the site, but it’s from many years ago and maybe doesn’t include weight measurements or maybe doesn’t include the most up-to-date technique. So we might need to revisit an older recipe. So sometimes that’s the inspiration, and sometimes, honestly, it’s just a cravings-based scenario. This last time that I was up in the test kitchen, I made gingerbread cookies that we were just talking about, and a couple summers ago I made a Biscoff cookie ice cream where it was ground up Biscoff.
EL: Oh, I remember that.
SP: Yeah, so while we were cleaning up from this gingerbread photo shoot, Vicky, our visual director, was like, “oh, my God, could you use these cookies to make ice cream like you did that one time?” And I was like, “I certainly can,” and that’s going to be a recipe that’s also going to be on the site because of that impromptu craving that she had, so we turned that into some ice cream and it was really good. It wound up being a little bit of a different formula from the Biscoff ice cream, because gingerbread is a different cookie. It has different behaviors in the base and just needs a couple little tweaks here and there, but that was kind of a last-minute. Nobody’s Googling for that, necessarily, but that’s all what we want in our hearts is gingerbread cookie ice cream.
EL: Talking about these cookies leads us right into our first question from Jim McKone, which is what’s the tastiest sugar cookie recipe combo of ingredients, secret preparations that you end up with mind-blowing results? Wow, that’s quite a question.
SP: It’s a loaded question. Fortunately, it’s one that we’ve somewhat answered on this site in that I’ve got my ultimate rolled sugar cookie dough recipe that’s already on Serious Eats, and so in it I do a couple of different things that, kind of like the secret ingredients or the hacks to make it as best as it can be, and one of the things is that it’s not made with 100% butter.
Most cookies are all butter cookies, but instead of using pure butter in this recipe I substitute a little bit of it with refined coconut oil. And refined coconut oil is a style that has no aroma or flavor of coconut. So even if you’re like, “I hate coconut,” this is not something that’s going to come into play in this recipe. It’s just there for the added richness, because if you’ve ever made a rolled sugar cookie cutout, you may have noticed that they can be a little bit dry, especially over time, if you’re trying to make a cookie that keeps well. So using a little bit of coconut oil in the dough helps it to stay more moist and rich, and it helps it seem more rich, because coconut oil is higher in fat per ounce when compared to butter.
So that’s one thing, and also by using coconut oil, it limits the amount of butter in the dough, and that all works together to limit browning. So if you’re trying to make these really pretty little snowflake cookies, they come out nice and white.
EL: So the coconut oil is really what gives you the mind-blowing results.
SP: It works with a couple of other techniques. Something else that I do in that particular recipe is I use a very small amount of baking soda, and I think most people when they see baking soda in a recipe they think of it as a leavener. They’re like, “This is going to make my cookies rise,” but in this particular recipe, there are not any acidic ingredients for that baking soda to react with, so it’s really just there almost functioning more of a seasoning. It’s adjusting the pH of the dough to push it in a vaguely more savory direction, kind of like, you know, on the site we’ve got a hack for taking just regular spaghetti and boiling it with some baking soda to make kind of like a hack ramen noodle, like if you’re in a pinch, that alkalizing the water can kind of do that to just a regular pasta dough. So in the same way, using a really small amount of baking soda, this is like 1/8 of a teaspoon in several pounds of dough, I think, using just that little, small amount of baking soda provides this little bit of alkalinity that makes a more rich and savory flavor profile for the sugar cookie. So a couple of little, small tweaks in there, and-
EL: Yeah, I love this.
SP: … plenty of vanilla. I use both vanilla extract and vanilla bean to really get a dual flavor layer going on.
EL: Yes, and your sugar cookies are amazing, and so are your shortbread cookies, which is so convenient, because Rory Rosszell has a question. It seems like my favorite shortbread recipes work fine for making bars but don’t work very well when I use them with cookie cutters. What is the trick for making cookies that keep their shape? Is it less butter? Is it the right ratio of flour and butter and sugar? What gives?
SP: Yeah, so for this one I think the real important thing to keep in mind is to look at what type of cookie you are and that you’re not asking it to function outside that role. So I would never even try to make a slice and bake cookie, which is what most shortbread are, like a slice and bake style, t that’s just not a style of dough that I would want to try and roll out. It’s more complicated than just, oh, amp up the butter a little bit, or stir in some water or something like that, because it’s a fundamentally different type of dough.
The texture for shortbread is designed to be very fragile and just melting, and you break away a bite. It just comes right of the cookie and melts in your mouth, and that kind of texture is not going to be sturdy enough for a rolled cookie cutout, where not only does the dough have to be transferred from a work surface to the baking sheet, then you have to eat this cookie. And so if you made a gingerbread man out of a shortbread dough, the arms would probably snap off at just the slightest bit of pressure.
It’s important when you have a recipe to not try and ask it to do something outside of its own genre, and that’s just like a general rule of thumb. I think I see that a lot of the time on the site when it comes to cakes. People will see a recipe that I have for layer cakes and they’ll say, “Oh, could I make this recipe in a Bundt pan?” But the kind of formula is very different for these two types of recipes. For a layer cake, you’ve got a batter that is designed to not dome or rise in that kind of rounded shape. It’s designed to stay very flat so it can make a nice flat layer for your cake, whereas in a Bundt pan you want something that’s going to rise a little bit more aggressively and be a little bit thicker and sturdier so it can conform to all the different molds of the pan, versus a layer cake batter which is a little bit of a softer, looser consistency.
EL: Got it, and it seems to me that also what you’re saying, and I’ve found this true about most great bakers, including you, is that there’s not a lot of substituting going on. There’s a reason that you use each ingredient, each implement, and it’s just not something people should casually think they can substitute for whatever they have handy.
SP: Substitutions can definitely happen. It just takes a pretty deep level of thought. A great example is buttermilk. Someone might be making a recipe for, say, buttermilk biscuits, and they say, “Oh, I don’t have any buttermilk. I’m just going to mix some milk and lemon juice together. That’ll be the same thing.” It’s not the same thing. A batch of biscuits may turn out passable or seem like they’re fine, but if you were to make them side-by-side, you would notice some extreme differences. And citric acid, a big squeeze of citric acid in milk is just disgusting. That’s not delicious.
EL: So excuse me, Stella, but finally Mr. Gritzer has deigned us with his presence after some misadventures in the New York City subway system.
Daniel Gritzer: Oh, man. Tell me about it.
EL: See, that’s Gritzer. He’s in the house. Dan Gritzer’s in the house.
DG: Sorry about that. Don’t know what happened.
EL: It happens. Stella and I have been talking about cookies, and how bakers are very precise, and that baking does not lend itself to substitutions.
DG: Indeed, indeed, which is why I would be a terrible baker.
EL: Well, that’s why we have Stella and D. Gritzer. So Gritzer, now that you’re in the house, Stella has told us what kind of preparation goes into developing holiday recipes at the site. All the meetings, and Stella told us she was working on her gingerbread cookie recipe for a year.
DG: Wow. Wow.
EL: How do you go about it?
DG: One of the funny things is a lot of food publications and magazines every holiday season, every Thanksgiving, ex Christmas, they have to kind of reinvent the holiday, because they have to justify the new issue, right? It’s like, what’s the new twist on Thanksgiving this year, and what’s the new twist on Christmas this year?
EL: A Sri Lankan Thanksgiving.
DG: Yeah, exactly, and we don’t do that at Serious Eats too much. I mean, sometimes we do some flavor variations and that kind of thing, but we tend to try to hit the classics, and hit them, do them really well. And so one thing that’s sort of interesting on the savory side is over the years and even before I was at Serious Eats, when Kenji was doing so much of the great Food Lab work, a lot of the holiday classics got covered. He did prime rib. He did turkey. He did … You go down the list, and you could check them off. And so on my side, a lot of the time it’s like, what are we missing? Trying to figure out those holes, and we are … There are things that we’re missing. I’m working on duck a l’Orange right now, which would be a really nice-
EL: Yeah, beautiful.
DG: … Christmas centerpiece. A big part on my side is just figuring out what are we missing, what do we need? And then, of course, on each one, okay, well, how do we tackle this one? How do we think about it? How do we do it in a way that other publications haven’t done it before? How do we go deeper? How do we ask those deeper questions to get to the next level and try to do something that’s really a Serious Eats recipe?
EL: Of course, for you, there are a lot of questions about roasts.
DG: Oh, yeah.
EL: So Gregg Robertson has a conundrum, and he hopes that you can help him.
DG: Yeah, let’s go for it.
EL: Our family likes to do a standing rib roast on Christmas Day, and I’m in charge, as the guy who cooks big hunks of meat, but the standing rib roast makes me nervous, because probably we’ve spent well over $100 on the sucker. What is a foolproof way to get a medium rare throughout rib roast? I use a meat thermometer, sometimes two, depending on the size of the roast, but sometimes it’s underdone and sometimes gets that dreaded gray color creeping in. The problem is, I don’t really know until we are ready to eat and I cut into it to serve it that that’s what’s happened, and I have 12 to 14 people standing there with their plates, ready to chow down. He’s feeling the heat. No pun intended.
DG: I don’t blame him. It’s, as he said, a prime rib, a standing rib roast is an expensive cut of meat. There are no two ways about it, and when you’re serving a big group of people you’d prefer not to disappoint them or embarrass yourself. I like to take the pressure off a little bit and say, “Hey, look, we all need to take a deep breath. I have served some bad food in my life. We will all survive a mistake,” but I get it. You don’t want to ruin a pricey piece of meat. I think what’s interesting in his question is he says he uses one and sometimes two thermometers, so that is really the first best piece of advice, especially on a big roast where as the size gets larger, the mystery of what’s happening in its depths increases.
DG: I find, and this is a little bit my cooking experience and intuition I’ve developed, on smaller roasts, yes, I can use a thermometer, but I don’t need to. I can look at it and I can just intuit what is happening inside kind of at any given time based on what’s happening on the surface and other pieces of information that I’m able to gather. When you have a big roast the guessing game’s a lot harder, because it’s a large mass of meat that the heat has to penetrate, and your ability to intuit when that has happened and to what degree really starts to get wonky. So thermometers are the way to go. I think one thing that’s interesting is that he has described some lack of success despite the use of thermometers.
EL: Multiple thermometers.
DG: Multiple thermometers, and multiple thermometers is a great idea, especially on a big roast.
EL: And turkey, too.
DG: It’s always helpful, because where the thermometer is placed is going to get you a different temperature reading, because a roast is not a perfectly uniform and even piece of meat.
EL: Just like a turkey.
DG: And a turkey even less so, because it’s got legs sticking out, and the bulk of the muscle in the legs is different from the white meat in the breast, and there are bones, and heat travels through the bones differently than the meat, and it travels through the fat differently than the muscle.
There are all these different factors at play, and then where you physically insert that thermometer probe is going to just tell you literally in that spot what’s the temperature. If you’re too close to the bone, or you’re touching the bone, or you’re too close to the edge and you’re not deep enough into the center, it may mislead you. The thermometer, as reliable of a tool as it is, can mislead you. So any time you can get multiple readings, either taking multiple readings with one thermometer and inserting it in different places to just get a sort of average out. If I stick the thermometer in one part of a roast and it says it’s 150 and I’m aiming for 140, I might go, “Oh, my God, this is overdone,” but what if I stick it somewhere else and it says it’s 125 there? There could be a lot going on, and so the multiple thermometers is great.
It might be good to just test the calibration of those thermometers. I’ve had very rare experiences with thermometers being miscalibrated, but it does happen. You can test them in boiling water. They should read 212 degrees Fahrenheit, assuming you’re at sea level, in boiling water, and you can test them in ice water, lots of ice and just enough water to fill up the gaps, stir it round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and that should even out at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or obviously zero degrees Celsius. So check your thermometers. Make sure they’re correct.
The second part of the question, in terms of that dreaded gray band, and this is where I might start to insert some of my own opinions, we have a technique on the site that Kenji largely popularized called the reverse sear, and the idea is you sort of invert the traditional cooking order. Instead of starting with high heat and then going low, you start with low heat and then you finish it high, and the advantage is that that low heat buys you a lot of time and it allows for a very gentle penetration of the heat into that massive meat, giving you a more even gradient of doneness.
Then if you were to hammer it with high heat from the outside the whole time, because then there’s more high heat building up in the exterior while you’re still waiting for it to reach the interior. So if you start low and go that way, you can reach a really nice, even temperature. The exterior of the roast also is drying out nicely at the same time, so when you crank the heat at the end you can get some really good browning on the exterior of the roast to finish it.
That said, I’m not the biggest prime rib fan, and part of it is because when you cook that roast and you slice each steak off after it’s been cooked, for me it’s kind of one-dimensional and boring. It’s an expanse of uninteresting pink, and I happen to kind of like getting a little bit more some gray in there. For some people that is just absolutely the worst thing in the world. For me, I don’t mind a gradient. It adds some interest to what’s happening. So there is room, also, for some personal decisions about what are your goals.
I complained on Twitter, maybe last year, that I didn’t really love prime rib, and Nigella Lawson responded, basically saying, “You should cook it to medium. I think you’ll like it a lot more.” I’m almost positive that’s what she said, and I thought, sort of, it was a point in line with what I’m saying about the gradient. Some of us don’t want that perfect edge-to-edge medium rare on the prime rib. Some of us do, so think about what you want. Apply the technique that gets you there. Use the thermometers, and then if it goes off the rails, open another bottle of wine.
EL: I like that. I like that approach. Stella, I presume you use the open a bottle of wine approach to whatever cooking problems you’re running into, too.
SP: Always. Absolutely.
EL: One of the things that Daniel just mentioned, which is worth saying again, is that we are so pleased that Nigella Lawson seems to take what we do really seriously. Not just our savory cooking, but Stella, like you and she have a sort of close Twitter relationship.
SP: It’s a close Twitter relationship. That’s a very special kind of friendship we have here in this modern era. Yeah, Nigella’s wonderful. It’s been such a surreal experience to kind of have a chance to get to know her a little bit on social, or I’ll post some random picture of something I’m working on on Instagram, and then there’s some random comments here and there, and then suddenly there’s a comment from Nigella Lawson, and you’re like, “What is my life? I can’t believe this.” It looks lovely.
EL: That’s awesome.
SP: And you just hear it in her voice, and you’re just like, “Ah,” like how can I print this out and put this on my refrigerator? I don’t …
EL: Stella, the invention that has brought you fame and maybe not fortune yet is this whole idea of toasted sugar.
SP: So toasted sugar is just plain, white, granulated sugar that has been tossed into an oven for some period of time, and that period of time, it’s kind of like toasting breadcrumbs or toasting almonds or something where you can give it a little bit or a lot to pull out different flavor profiles, like a light toast or a dark toast. So you can put a small amount of sugar in the oven for a very short period of time or a larger amount, like a whole entire bag of sugar. You can put that in the oven for several, several hours, and what happens is the sugar … This is a weird sounding phrase. The sugar starts to thermally decompose, which is to say it starts to caramelize without ever melting, and so you end up getting this kind of dry, granular, lightly caramelized product.
EL: Can you use it in holiday cookies?
SP: It’s still mostly sucrose, so it behaves like sugar in any recipe that calls for white sugar. It’s a total one-to-one swap, but because some caramelization has taken place, it doesn’t taste as sweet and it does bring a little bit more complexity, some toastiness, some nuttiness and that sort of thing coming into a dough.
EL: And it was a happy accident, was it not?
SP: It was a happy accident. It was the result of me becoming supremely distracted at work back in my restaurant days. I used to work at this restaurant, and we had … I called it the pastry dungeon. It was like my station was all downstairs, and it was in this old building that was built in the 1800s in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, and it was limestone wall, dugout basement, and it would get down to 55 degrees in the winter, and it was so cold, and we didn’t have a microwave or anything like that. It was so cold that I couldn’t get my butter and sugar to cream up soft and light, because even if I kind of arranged my butter near the oven so that it could soften to something like 68 or 70 degrees, as soon as I combined it with the 55 degree sugar, which had just been sitting in a bin day in, day out, equalizing with the temperature of the kitchen, the sugar would literally chill the butter and cause it to harden back up, and so I couldn’t cream it for cakes or cookies or anything like that.
So I got into the habit of taking my flour and my sugar and putting them in hotel pans and just turning on the oven on the lowest setting and letting them just kind of warm up for a little bit, and I wasn’t trying to heat them or cook them. I was just trying to hit 70 degrees just to mimic a normal room temperature environment.
EL: So you were trying to make your stuff work.
SP: Yeah, just trying to make it work. And yeah, so anyhow, one day, due to a lot of maybe foreseeable but unforeseen events, I was signing checks, and receiving deliveries, and checking on orders, and helping fix a broken dishwasher, and just all the kind of things you do at a restaurant, just running around like a crazy person and lost track of time. And so about five or six hours later I started to smell this caramel smell wafting up from the dungeon, and I was just like, “Oh, my God.” I just completely … In my mind, the caramel smell was so strong I just assumed the sugar had completely melted and was going to be overflowing the pan and this huge bubbling mess when I got down to the kitchen, but I opened the oven door and it was just this very innocuous tray of slightly beige looking sugar sitting there. But it was unbelievably delicious despite the fact that it didn’t look that different from plain sugar. Its nature had transformed entirely.
EL: I love that.
DG: You know what’s funny is I once lost a whole fish in the back of an oven for five or six hours during a busy service, and I ended up with thermally decomposed fish, but it was not a happy accident.
EL: That’s a tragic accident.
SP: So sad.
EL: I know this is not what you did when the happy accident occurred, but how long should people put their sugar in to properly toast it, and at what temperature?
SP: So that really depends on how much sugar you’re looking to toast. So on Serious Eats we have a guide to quick-toasting sugar, which is ideal for small amounts, I would say anything at or under a pound of sugar, and that’s something you can do at 350 for a very short period of time. You want to really keep a close eye on it, and …
EL: Like 15 or 20 minutes short period of time?
SP: I would say 30 minutes to 45.
EL: Got it.
SP: Maybe, I mean, you can go for shorter. Same thing if you’re toasting nuts or breadcrumbs. You don’t have to go to any specific length of time. It’s all a little bit about personal taste and what you’re looking for in it. But so a shorter window for smaller quantities of sugar, and if you’re doing a larger quantity of sugar, you can go … If you’re working with, say, a minimum of four pounds, you can go up to four to six hours.
But with larger quantities of sugar, it’s really important to stir the sugar very frequently and very thoroughly. It’s not just kind of wiggling the spoon in the dish of sugar. You want to really circulate the sugar around so that the sugar around the edges gets to the middle and the sugar around the middle gets to the edges, because one of the byproducts of thermal decomposition is that the sugar is literally being transformed into something else, and the byproduct of that process is water. So it actually is generating steam. And so if you don’t stir the sugar enough, that steam will be entrapped and case it to start to clump up and potentially melt, because it’s dissolving in water. So you want to make sure it’s really stirred really well.
EL: Got it. So it’s not a set it and leave it kind of a thing.
SP: Yeah, I mean, that’s how I stumbled into it, but I have been able to produce better and more consistent results by babysitting it and taking a little bit more care. I was also toasting like 20 pounds of sugar, so that left me a much larger window, margin of error, compared to someone working with a smaller batch at home.
EL: Sure. So Daniel, someone has a question on artichokes.
DG: My favorite.
EL: A lot of people stay away from cooking artichokes, because they think it’s hard, right? Between the leaves, and how do you get to the heart? And so Jeanne Subotnick has a very, very basic question about how to prepare artichokes Italian-style, cooked in olive oil, which I have seen on many Italian holiday tables.
DG: Yes, indeed. It’s funny. Artichokes are also controversial, because when I was a kid I grew up eating artichokes, and we steamed them, we put them on the table with some kind of mayo or something, or drawn butter, and we would pluck the leaves off the … I think they’re called bracts, technically. Pluck them off, and you scrape them with your teeth, and you eat every last conceivably edible part of the artichoke until you get down to the heart, and then of course you eat the heart, too.
There are a lot of preparations out there in the world that require trimming off some or all of those leaves and losing some of that teeth-scraping portion of the project, and some people get really pissed off when you suggest that this might be an option. But it is an option, and it allows you to do a lot of other interesting things with an artichoke, and it does require a little bit of practice to learn the techniques for how to trim an artichoke. It is very doable, but it is something you have to do a few times before you get the hang of it, so buy a … I don’t know. Artichokes aren’t necessarily cheap. You buy a couple extra just in case you accidentally gouge one, or something.
EL: Now, we have this on the site, right?
DG: Oh, yeah. I have videos and guides to trimming a dozen different ways. No, probably three or four different ways. And it’s kind of fun to do. It can be meditative, and it’s sort of like sculpting or something, where you start out … If you start out with a block of marble and you have to get to your sculpture within, that’s kind of what an artichoke is like. You have to get down to some level of the heart.
So the Roman ones, there’s actually two really famous Roman artichoke preparations. One is carciofi alla giudia, which is the Roman-Jewish fried artichoke recipe. Those artichokes are trimmed down a bit, but some amount of the tender inner leaves are left on. In Rome they have artichokes that lack the choke, that fuzzy, awful stuff right in the kind of cup of the heart that you don’t want to eat.
EL: Would that be known as the choke hold? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It was just hanging there like a chad.
DG: Yeah. You totally derailed my train of thought with that. Anyway, the artichokes we tend to get here in the United States have chokes. The choke has, yeah, been put on hold and left in the artichoke and you need to take it out. You scoop it out with a spoon. Again, all the details of the technique are on the site. Once you trim down the artichoke, the fried style, it’s a two stage cooking process where first you cook the artichokes in olive oil at a lower temperature. I think my recipe has it around 280 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s to make them tender. They come out. You kind of smash them flat a little bit and open them up so that they kind of look like flowers, and then you raise the heat on the oil to deep frying temperatures up in 350 or so, and then go back in and you fry them until they’re golden and crisp.
And for anyone who’s worried about using high heat on olive oil, there is no scientific evidence that I have been able to find to suggest that it is a bad thing to do. The Roman Jews have been doing it for millennia, literally, and it seems to be perfectly fine.
EL: It’s interesting, because that dual cooking method is essentially doing for artichokes what people do to French fries.
DG: Yes. With French fries, you’re contending with the starch and there’s some other things you’re trying to accomplish, but ultimately, yeah, you’re getting a parcooking step done and then you’re getting a high-heat frying step done. The other Roman artichoke recipe, and I’m not sure which one was originally being asked about, are carciofi alla Romana, just Roman style artichokes. And those are braised, the hearts, they’re braised in olive oil with garlic and herbs. It’s traditionally there’s an herb called nepitella that’s very hard, next to impossible to find here, unless you’re at a farmers’ market where some quirky farmer happens to be growing it. It’s kind of a cross between mint and oregano, and so I think in my recipe for that, which is also on the site … I have recipes for both styles. I do a blend of mint and oregano to sort of try to ape that nepitella flavor. And those are all … they’re wonderful. There’s some, I think, white wine in there, and yeah. The Italians really, really, really know their way around an artichoke and love artichokes, and I think more people here should try to work them into their lives and get past the intimidation factor of this strange thistle that’s-
EL: And are fresh artichokes now available year round from somewhere?
DG: You often do see them. Here, at least in the Northeast, we’re not in artichoke growing season. That’s thought of more as a spring vegetable. California has a much longer growing season for artichokes. Sometimes in the off season they can be a bit more dry, and I have actually had an artichoke combust, spontaneously combust while I was slicing it.
EL: You had an artichoke explode?
DG: Explode would be overstating it, but light on fire. Sparks and char and tufts of smoke wafting up off the artichoke from nothing more than cutting it, and I was so, so shocked by this. And I looked it up, and it’s a documented phenomenon.
EL: It’s not a Twilight Zone episode?
DG: Apparently not, so …
DG: If you get an out of season artichoke and this happens, don’t be too surprised.
EL: Wow, that’s crazy. So listen, we have to go for now, but Daniel and Stella are going to stick around. Next time we’re going to get into a lot of other really good questions that people have asked about pumpkins, more about roasts and tenderloins, and Stella’s going to talk about chocolate syrup, and nut allergies, and royal icing. And for those of you who have been listening to this, we want to wish you all very, very happy holidays, and we hope you spend them with people you love and eating food you love to eat.
SP: Thanks for having us, Ed.
DG: Thanks, Ed.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters. Have a great holiday, and we’ll see you next time